Recently, Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios released a lovely, easily digestible video series about cultural criticism, harassment, and privilege. It was super thought-provoking, so I want to showcase and engage with his argument here. In this first piece, we’ll look at his first three videos and talk about what I think he gets wrong.
On the ‘About’ page of this blog, I talk a little bit about my tongue-in-cheek url and my drive to analyze the pieces of pop culture I love. I started this project because media we consume both shapes us and is shaped by us. The people I promote on this blog and my YouTube channel share these beliefs, and one of those people is Anita Sarkeesian.
If you haven’t yet heard of her, I’m a little concerned that you haven’t been on the internet in five years, but don’t worry–Danskin gives a great summary of her work and the backlash to it in his new videos.
Danskin’s central question is why do cultural critics like Sarkeesian receive not just floods of counter-arguments but also personal attacks against them ranging from ridiculous to terrifying? And why do some of those attackers join together to form movements like Gamergate? In essence, why are people so angry?
As a shorthand, he calls the people attacking Sarkeesian ‘Angry Jack’ or as I’ll call him ‘AJ.’ AJ is typically one or more of the following: white, male, straight, cis, and middle/upper class. This allows him to see the world at its most ideal: a world where he is not judged based on his gender, the color of his skin, his sexuality, the abilities of his body, the state of his mental health, or his wealth or class status. A world where he is an individual and defined by his individual actions.
When someone says something like “I’m vegan,” or “I don’t drink,” or “that game is sexist,” it forces AJ to look at the world in a different way, to wonder whether doing or liking the things this person doesn’t do/like makes HIM a bad person. As Danskin points out, this is a complex question, but I’ll do my best to outline what we have to consider.
First things first, the value of a human being is inherent and does not come from their accomplishments or even their individual choices in isolation. Second things second, of course, we are all responsible for our own behaviors and accountable for the consequences of those behaviors. Behaviors can affect others and society at large.
Growing up, most of us believed what we saw and what we were told without questioning it. It would be exhausting to debate every single decision we made or belief we adopted, and the beliefs our society extolled are already long-established, so we accepted them as fact upon hearing of them and moved on.
That means that if/when we’re forced to question them, we’re questioning not just our beliefs at that moment, but an entire lifetime of attitudes and actions. And if we forget for a moment that what is up for debate is not our character as an individual, not our intentions, but the society we live in and how our attitudes and actions affect everyone, then that means we could believe we’ve been not just wrong but ‘bad’ for a long time. And that might make us feel judged for the groups we belong to or the things we enjoy rather than our character.
On all of this, Danskin and I agree, but I do think he gets one thing wrong in his argument; he posits that the AJs of the world feel this way but are hangers-on who go along with the real ‘bad guys.’ He contrasts them with ‘psychopaths’ who threaten and dox people they disagree with for no good reason. I don’t think that’s the case. First of all, as one of his viewers/followers pointed out, it is ableist to blame harmful behavior on mental illness or say that all psychopathic or sociopathic people will behave harmfully. But it’s also just plain not true.
The sad fact of the matter is, the abusers and rapists he uses as foils to online harassers in his videos are not the exceptions. They are parents and siblings and friends. They are humans. As are online harassers in communities like GG. That’s why things like rape culture and toxic gaming culture exist–those acts have the power of social norms and hierarchies behind them.
In the most benign of forms, AJ dismisses rather than engages with privilege. He resorts to derailment in the name of things like ‘journalism ethics.’ He posits that he and his fellow AJs are a ‘minority’ who deserves to speak, or that he is engaging in an ‘intellectual debate’ with two equally valid sides. He is Taylor Swift tweeting to Nicki Minaj about the VMAs.
At his most dangerous, the same AJ is violent and abusive. He uses hate speech to scare people who speak up about issues they care about. He makes an online game where people can punch Sarkeesian in the face. He is Redditors sending death threats to former CEO Ellen Pao.
Danskin points out that many people believe that harassers are gonna harass no matter what. But that isn’t exactly true. Harassment is a choice, a reaction to discomfort, to anger and disappointment and doubt that previously didn’t exist, that makes it harder to continue living the way we always had until someone like Sarkeesian spoke up. Those who bring social issues to AJ’s attention and spark this discomfort become symbols of the destruction of ease and innocence in AJ’s life, so to cope he chooses to lash out at them.
Many AJs have most grown up seeing gaming as a safe space for them, an area of culture where they can go to escape their personal disappointments. This helps explain, but not excuse, why someone like AJ might attack someone like Sarkeesian, who asks him to examine games and how they affect others. To him, this means he has to question himself, which is a scary, difficult, and – if we’re honest – life-long process.
It’s much easier to deflect. Danskin says that AJ is less a type of person and more the mindset we enter when we are faced with our privilege and enter defend-and-attack mode. I agree that every person with privilege, at one point in another in their lives, feels uncomfortable about taking advantage of privilege or having it at all says about their character. We privileged few each have the ability to become an AJ.
But that reaction is a choice. To avoid becoming one, we have to develop alternative reactions, new coping mechanisms. We have to recognize that a) it’s okay to feel discomfort but b) the social issues being exposed are bigger than our individual discomfort and therefore c) the debate at hand isn’t actually about our morality at all.
Thanks for reading! On Saturday we’ll talk about how we can create just online spaces and hold ourselves and others accountable. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, like what do you think of Danskin’s videos? Where does harassment come from? Why do I get so defensive when someone says they don’t drink soda?